The winter break of my sophomore year was spent in New Orleans, Louisiana. I didn’t travel down for the semi-finals game, like many Buckeyes, but instead went down with a group of sixteen for a service-learning trip, one that I had helped plan. The entire semester beforehand, my Action Team had researched hotels, tours, service experiences for our group, and now it was real and it was amazing. Each moment seems like a snapshot. The confusion of my first gumbo. The ecstasy with my first Café du Monde beignet. Accidentally finding the first parade of Mardi Gras. Playing in a park at night and returning in the morning to find out that has a rich history in the voodoo religion and slave community. Walking along Bourbon Street to get to the galleries. Marveling at the street art. Trying gator. Finding the loveliest jazz voices in tattered coats on midnight streets. Yet, of all my memories, the brightest surrounds Burnell Cotlon and his grocery store.
When planning the trip, we’d actually arranged to help out at a food pantry. Our reservation fell through last minute and we looked to our NOLA contacts to help us. They found us a site in the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood hardest hit by Katrina, where areas of broken houses and torn lots gave the impression that the water had receded a month before, instead of a decade. Before we arrived on site, all we knew was that we would be cleaning a parking lot. The reluctance was tangible. No one wanted to be there, especially so early, and most were questioning why we couldn’t have “fun service.” The majority viewed it as a chore, not valuable, but necessary to get to the exciting stuff. Then we met Burnell Cotlon.
His energy, his joy radiated from every gesture, every movement. He was a retired police officer who poured all his money into the reconstruction of the building, transforming it into a barbershop and then adding a grocery store. He gave the community jobs; he gave it his time. His store was the first since the Storm; a month before, parents would sent their kids on three buses just to get a loaf of bread. His effort, his results, proved that the people hadn’t given up on the Lower Ninth. He gave them hope.
With the parking lot clean, more people would come. The area would be better, more friendly. The media would be more likely to let people know about his store and the cars could use the lot without the dangers of a flat tire. Moms and dads wouldn’t have to leave their children alone for hours while they got food. Kids could come after school and eat snowballs.
It was the first time I truly felt the impact of service. I always knew, always talked about the benefits of volunteering, the difference made. This was the first time I felt it. Felt like what I did was going to be something lasting, mean something, whether it was just a step in the right direction, or the step that let a family have easier access to dinner.
The vibe of the group changed completely. Everyone reached for a rake, a shovel, a bag. We stretched out to each corner and no one dallied; no one tried to get out of it or help out halfheartedly. It was voted the trip’s most meaningful experience, the favorite activity and the reason that our executive board is interested in a 2015 Buck-I-Serv back to NOLA.
The store, and the man behind it, has etched itself in our minds and memories. New Orleans will always have a piece of my heart, and it will reside in the Lower Ninth.